Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, speaks during a news conference at a European Union (EU) leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

Theresa May in the Brexit Foxhole

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week's European Union summit on Brexit attracted a lot of attention for little real news. To understand why the talks are so stalled, it helps to borrow a somewhat strained metaphor from Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab.

When Raab, then new to the job, met the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, for the first time three months ago, he gave him a copy of Isaiah Berlin's much-appropriated essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In it, the philosopher quotes the Greek poet Archilochus saying “the fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one big thing.”

Raab wasn't being subtle. A leave-supporter during the Brexit referendum, he had likened the rule-driven EU to a hedgehog next to Britain's fox.

But the distinction is far more useful for understanding the divisions back in the U.K. that make it so difficult to predict whether or how Prime Minister Theresa May will get a divorce deal through parliament. Those splits are the main reason that the only news out of Brussels last week was the offer of an extended period of transition before Britain fully leaves the EU.

In the U.K. political context, the hedgehogs are the ones blocking a deal, or the prospect of it getting parliamentary approval. The foxes are more willing to accept trade-offs; they are doing the negotiating, but they have to sell a final deal to the hedgehogs.

But what is the one big thing for the Brexit hedgehogs? For Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, it's sovereignty, or taking back control. Any Brexit that leaves the country without full control of its laws and borders would be unacceptable.

For Arlene Foster's Democratic Unionist Party, the small Northern Irish Party whose 10 MPs prop up May's government, it's the Union – not the European Union, but the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

That makes the DUP implacably opposed to any agreement – the so-called Irish backstop guarantee – that would keep open the border with Ireland, but require regulatory or customs checks to be conducted somewhere else on British territory. That would breach the U.K.'s constitutional integrity.

There are other important Brexit hedgehogs. Take Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party. In theory, he was a remainer in the 2016 referendum. But he didn't campaign with any enthusiasm and had been a longtime euroskeptic. Staying in the EU would likely be incompatible with his plans to nationalize parts of British industry. His one big thing is a new election that gives Labour a shot at taking power. That's why the party, the key to getting any deal through parliament, is being so quiet about the prospects of no deal; it's not their fight.

That isn't to say all Labour lawmakers are hedgehogs. There are many foxes among them, like Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer. They saved the government on a couple of Key Brexit-related bills earlier this year, and their numbers are growing. There may now be even be more of them than hedgehogs, hence May's recent effort to court Labour MPs and voters.

The Prime Minister has become increasingly foxy, in Berlin's sense of the word. Her party conference speech this year, a bid for the moderate ground of British politics, was pure fox, in contrast to her 2016 speech in which she said “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

But for May, a reluctant remainer, rolling with the hedgehogs has gotten her into a world of trouble. She rushed to trigger Article 50, starting the two-year negotiating process, without a clear idea of what Britain wanted at the end of it. She appeased the hedgehogs again with a hardline speech at Lancaster House in January 2017 that closed off many milder Brexit options. When she agreed in December to the Irish backstop – which would create a customs border in the U.K if no way was found to avoid it – she promised the hedgehogs it would be time-limited and wouldn't prevent the U.K. from doing its own trade deals.

The foxes have two big problems in preventing the U.K. from crashing out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement in place. One is that they aren't a cohesive bunch – some were leavers, others remainers, and for different reasons. The second is their thinking can't be summarized easily. “We want an outcome that respects the will of the 52 percent who voted for Brexit (without giving much thought to what that means), which provides certainty for businesses and doesn't tank the economy” is a reasonable position. It just doesn't fit on a placard.

Given the advantage hedgehogs have in the Brexit battle, this doesn't look good for May. The contours of a Brexit withdrawal agreement are well-known and the room for maneuvering now is minute. The weeks before the clock runs out are all about winning enough support to pass an agreement, which means wooing some hedgehogs and uniting more foxes.

If that's to happen, the foxes will need, at least for a time, to have one, big thing of their own: Getting an orderly Brexit deal. And hedgehogs will have to be made to feel accountable for the outcome, since the one thing that has been shown to temper their single-mindedness is accountability.

Little wonder Barnier's gift to Raab at their first meeting was a book by Nelson Mandela's grandson, one all about personal responsibility, adaptability and endurance. Raab, and his boss, will need it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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